Police Union Sues To Cut Firefighters' Pay Link

August 25, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

Baltimore's police union wants to jettison a decades-old contract provision that requires the city to give firefighters the same pay raises that police officers receive, hoping the move will clear the way for larger pay increases.

The police union leadership filed a lawsuit against the city last week on grounds that the parity or "me too" provisions of the fire unions' contract puts the police in the position of "indirectly" negotiating for fire wages, according to the complaint filed in Baltimore Circuit Court. The clause therefore "interjects the interests of the Fire Department" into the police wage and benefits negotiations, according to the suit.

"The firefighters control their own destiny, the police don't," said Michael Marshall, a partner with Schlackmann, Belsky & Weiner, a law firm representing the police union. "The assumption is if both the police and the firefighters were bargaining separately, there could be years where the police would get more money."

Robert F. Cherry, the police union president, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. City officials also declined to comment.

The current police contract with the city does not include a similar parity clause, which means the city could give firefighters a raise without providing matching pay increases to the police.

Capt. Stephan Fugate, the head of the fire officers union, called the parity clause a "negotiating tool" and said it would not be "the end of the world" if the fire unions lost it. "I've been in negotiations where we had it and where we didn't have it and frankly we survived," Fugate said.

The fire unions negotiate their annual contract with the city first, which means their wage deal sets the floor for other city unions' negotiations. The clause "keeps the city honest" because it prevents administration officials from telling the firefighters that raises or other benefits are off the table while giving incentives to the police, Fugate said.

Bob Sledgeski, the firefighters union leader, said he believes the provision has helped his members some years but hurt them in others.

The parity clause has existed since at least 1974 and became controversial in 1999 when Gov. Martin O'Malley, then Baltimore's mayor, proposed increasing police salaries by 33 percent over three years without give a matching increase to firefighters. Fire unions sued the city and won similar increases, though the firefighters received less than police.

Both fire union leaders said that the suit does not represent a larger rift with the police union, stressing that all three public safety unions are working together on separate pension reform proposals.

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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